Complementary Therapy

complementary therapy

What is complementary medicine?

Complementary medicine is the term used here to describe additional forms of cancer treatment that may be given along with chemotherapy and traditional Western medicine.

In the past, complementary medicine has claimed various types of "miracle" cures for cancer, which have since proved ineffective or even fraudulent. The integration of conventional and complementary cancer treatments however, is of increasing interest. This approach is being adopted at leading cancer treatment centers (such as Cleveland Clinic) and hospices and by self-help groups. Gentle therapies such as massage, relaxation, and other "healing" therapies play a major role in palliative care (symptom relief). Some patients find that complementary medicine, also called integrative medicine and/or holistic healing can help alleviate the side effects, pain and anxiety associated with chemotherapy and cancer treatments in general.

Sometimes complementary medicine is mistakenly referred to as "alternative therapy" or "alternative medicine," and it is important to distinguish between the two. Complementary medicine is recognized and approved by many health care professionals as an additional method of cancer treatment, whereas alternative therapy is not. Complementary medicine is given along with chemotherapy whereas alternative medicine is given in place of chemotherapy and includes non-approved, non-tested treatments that can be harmful.

No matter what type of complementary medicine you may choose to explore, Cleveland Clinic recommends you consult your physician before beginning any form of additional therapy.

General Precautions Regarding Complementary Medicine:

  • Cleveland Clinic recommends that you consult a doctor before starting any nonconventional form of treatment.
  • Do not stop taking any prescribed medication without first consulting your doctor.
  • Tell your complementary practitioner about any prescribed medication you are taking, and any other complementary treatments you are receiving.
  • Tell your doctor about any complementary treatments or remedies you are taking.
  • Do not start on a vigorous exercise program without first consulting a doctor.
  • Advise your practitioner if you have any sexually transmitted disease.
  • See your doctor if symptoms persist or worsen.

Types of Complementary Therapies

Experts divide complementary medicine into five categories: Sensory, cognitive, expressive, physical and medical systems.

Sensory complementary therapies are therapies that work in conjunction with the five senses: smell, site, taste, sound and touch, as well as the body's overall energy.


The theory of this complementary therapy is that the essential oils are absorbed into the body either through the pores of the skin during massage, or by inhalation through the nose. The scents released by the oil act on the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that influences the hormonal system. Thus, in theory, a smell might affect mood, metabolism, stress levels, and libido. Clinical research into claims for the effects of essential oils on medical conditions is not extensive, but the psychological effects of smell have been studied more.

Some common essential oils used are chamomile, lavender, peppermint, rosemary, sandalwood and tea tree. There are conflicting reports regarding the properties and uses for oils, and responses to smells are highly personal.

Landscape Therapy

Landscape therapy is the showing of peaceful, relaxing landscapes to patients, scenes that evoke calm and tranquility. They may be shown in a darkened room via a slide show or video screen, or they may be shown in the form of art books or actual artwork. Landscape therapy is often used as a distraction technique to help manage pain and anxiety that results from cancer treatment.

Music Therapy

Music therapy is an expressive art form designed to help an individual move into harmony and balance. Music therapy can incorporate both listening to and/or playing music. Music therapists are professionals who are educated to design music programs for cancer treatment patients. Through the use of music, individuals explore emotional, spiritual and behavioral issues. Music therapy can help patients release emotions and relax. Listening to music can be either calming or invigorating.


Massage is a form of complementary medicine that relies on the body's nerve endings and pressure points to promote relaxation. There are many forms of massage: Shiatsu, Hellerwork, and Reflexology for example. However, the most widespread variation builds upon the five basic strokes of Swedish massage: effleurage (slow, rhythmic gliding strokes in the direction of blood flow towards the heart) petrissage (kneading, pressing and rolling muscle groups) friction (steady pressure or tight circular movements, often used around joints) percussion, (drumming hands on body) and vibration (rapid movement shaking the muscle back and forth).

There are many benefits to massage therapy for patients undergoing cancer treatment. There are also concerns and possible risks. Massage therapy has been used to treat stress

and anxiety, improve mood, induce relaxation, and control pain. For patients undergoing surgery the application of appropriate massage can promote healing at incision sites and may prevent or reduce scarring following cancer treatment surgery. Use of foot massage was shown to have a positive effect on patients' perceptions of pain, nausea and relaxation.

There are situations in which massage can be risky or the techniques need to be adjusted. For example, massage should not be given if signs of infection are present at the surgical site. Immediately after surgery when a person is at risk of developing blood clots, massage of the legs is not advised. Patients undergoing radiation should not have massage techniques applied in the area of the radiation field because the massage may further irritate the irradiated skin. During chemotherapy, often patients are at increased risk of infection, anemia or bruising. Special precautions need to be taken with massage at this time. The use of massage therapy as an adjunct to cancer treatment should be discussed with the patient's treating physician (oncologist, radiation oncologist or surgeon). This is so that any risks can be discussed and details about the patient's condition can be provided so that a licensed massage therapist (LMT) can provide a safe and effective massage to the patient with cancer.

When seeking out a massage therapist it is recommended that information regarding the therapist's education and credentials be reviewed. The following are criteria that are recommended in a massage therapist:

  • Graduated from an accredited program, which meets the standards set by the Commission on Massage Therapy and Accreditation. A listing of such training programs can be found at:
  • Holds a current state license in massage therapy
  • Is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork
  • Is a member of a professional association, such as the American Massage Therapy Association
  • Has received special training in massage of patients undergoing cancer treatment.

Massage therapy can be very beneficial to a person undergoing cancer treatment. However, be sure to discuss with your health care provider so this therapy can be used safely.

Therapeutic Touch (TT)

Therapeutic Touch is a complementary medicine form that presupposes that people have individual "energy fields" that interact with one another and with the environment as part of a universal energy force. These fields are thought of in scientific, rather than in mystical terms. In the late 1960's Dr. Dolores Krieger, Professor of Nursing at New York University learned the technique of "laying on of hands" from a healer, Dora Kunz. She began to teach what she called Therapeutic Touch to her students.

In a Therapeutic Touch (TT) session, the practitioner attempts to attune their energy fields with the patient so that disturbances in the "energy flow" are balanced and the body's healing powers can work freely. Hands are placed inches above the body and gently moved over it to assess any changes or blockages in the energy field. Using sweeping movements, the practitioner will try to treat the area of imbalance, perhaps by visualizing healing energy directed from her body to the patient. A session may last 10-15 minutes. TT is used to treat stress-related conditions, such as fatigue and headaches. It is also used for pain relief, especially from muscle strain and following surgery. It also has been used to promote wound healing, and for lymphatic and circulation disorders.


Reiki is a form of Japanese spiritual healing. This complementary medicine has its foundation in ancient Tibetan Buddhism, apparently forgotten until its rediscovery in the late 19th century. The aim of reiki is to promote health, maintain well-being, and help people attain a higher consciousness. Practitioners draw on "reiki energy" channeling it to areas of need in themselves and their patients. They borrow terminology from physics, claiming that reiki acts at an atomic level, causing the body's molecules to vibrate with higher intensity and thus dissolving energy blockages that lead to disharmony and disease.

A treatment session lasts about an hour; the practitioner directs reiki energy through his hands to the patient. The patient lies clothed on a treatment table and the practitioner holds his hands on or over the body in 12 basic positions for about five minutes each. This is said to balance the body's energy centers or "chakras." Some patients may feel relaxed after treatment; others feel invigorated.


According to practitioners, the feet are a mirror of the body, and applying pressure to areas on the foot that correspond to the affected organs may help to relieve symptoms such as pain, constipation, and nausea. Reflexology is increasingly available in many hospices, and is often given by nurses.


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